Port has something of an image problem. Its unfortunate reputation calls to mind red-trousered gentlemen puffing cigars after dinner and passing decanters of port to their left – a tradition that allegedly relates to keeping one’s right hand free, in case access to one’s sword is required. Eye rolls all round.
When we do drink port it’s usually only at Christmas, downed with stilton and mince pies at the end of the festive feast. It’s rarely thought about again until the following year. A shame really, for port can be lovely to drink all year round.
Named after the city of Porto (read our foodie guide here) on the west coast of Portugal, at the mouth of The Douro, port comes under the category of fortified wines. These are wines that have a little grape spirit added to them, which stops the fermentation process early and preserves the wine – a technique dating back to the 17th century, when barrels of wine were shipped to England that would otherwise spoil on their long journeys.
Vintage port is only made in years when there has been an exceptional harvest, and it’s intended to be drunk at least 10 years after bottling (often much longer). Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) spends longer in the barrel before bottling, while tawny port is aged in small barrels and bottled only when it’s deemed ready to drink. Lighter and fresher than vintage and LBV ports, tawny ports have the added advantage of lasting longer after opening.
White port, as the name suggests, is made from white grapes and is generally bottled young. Served over ice with tonic and a slice of orange, a sprig of thyme or maybe a cinnamon stick, it is the aperitif of the Douro region.
Madeira is another fortified wine, made on the Portuguese island of the same name. Transported to the Americas and beyond in the 18th century, the barrels of wine were exposed to the high temperatures of the tropics, and partly evaporated through the pores of the oak staves. Made in styles ranging from super-sweet to bone-dry, madeira has an incredible complexity, and a characteristic dazzling acidity that makes it a favourite among so many wine lovers. Sercial is the grape that makes the driest style, followed by verdelho, boal and malvasia (the sweetest).
Sherry (check out our favourite sherries here) is also much underrated by the modern drinker. Made in the south-west of Spain around the city of Jerez (from which it gets its name), sherry is fortified wine that is left to age in part-filled wooden barrels where a layer of yeast, called the flor, grows on the surface and imparts its unique flavours into the wine. Manzanilla and fino are the driest styles, while olorosos and amontillados are richer and nuttier. Look for cream sherry if you have a sweet tooth.
Fortified wines in summer
Port and other fortified wines are not just for winter, they make for great summer drinking, too. Keep these bottles in the fridge, serve them neat or poured over ice, or mix them with tonic water, soda or lemonade. Make free with whatever garnish takes your fancy – lemon, orange, strawberry, thyme, mint, rosemary and bay leaves can all work well. And spread the word – these drinks are cool, in more ways than one.
The best port and fortified wines to try in summer…
Tesco Finest Fino Sherry (£6, Tesco)
Sandeman Fine White Porto (£10, Co-op Food)
Blandy’s 10-year-old Verdelho Madeira (£19.50, The Wine Society)
Quinta do Noval 10-year-old Tawny Port (£24.99, Waitrose)